As Madison Avenue buyers packed into the Beacon Theatre on Monday, they were greeted with Fox’s annual dose of star power — and 90 minutes devoted to cutting through in a changing landscape.
Here are the takeaways:
1. A rough fall. “Part of the upfront is being upfront,” notes Kevin Reilly, before serving up the type of candor for which he has become known: “This was not our best year.” Translation: Fox will cede its 18-to-49 crown this season to CBS for the first time in several years. But to hear him and ad sales president Toby Byrne tell it, Fox is excelling in plenty of other metrics. For instance, the network has spent 11 seasons as No. 1 among the 18-to-34 set, and its shows overindex in delayed viewing. A recent episode of The Following, for instance, gained 81 percent once seven days of delayed viewing were factored in. Reilly does use the upfront platform to assure his deep-pocketed audience that Fox will return to its No. 1 status among the coveted 18-to-49 demo next season, a statement he is confident making given both his lineup as well as the inclusion of the Super Bowl. ??
2. Men, men, men. If last year was all about the funny ladies of Fox –-Mindy Kaling! Dana Fox! Zooey Deschanel! Liz Meriwether! Dakota Johnson!— this upfront was all about the comedy offerings of men. Max “Schmidt” Greenfield was called upon to introduce the comedy clips, which feature a slew of different actors, from Geoff Stults (Enlisted) to Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) to Seth Green (Dads) to Chris Meloni (Surviving Jack). Reilly’s hope is that the new crop not only will offer a jolt of testosterone but also the potential to lure a broad audience — or at least broader than its current femme-skewing lineup.
3. Social media matters. A lot. There was much time devoted to talk about Twitter, with Reilly boasting Fox’s status as the No. 1 social network, according to Blue Fin Labs, and making note of a new partnership with Twitter. In fact, Fox enlisted its top talent, including J.J. Abrams, James L. Brooks, Ryan Seacrest, Kaling and Meriwether to acknowledge the value of other platforms in a recorded video while still driving home the value of broadcast TV — and, more specifically, Fox. The network’s digital initiatives got some praise, too, including ADHD, Wigs (about the lives of women) and Short-com Comedy Hour. “This is my ideal sitcom,” said Kevin Smith in a video introducing the latter. “It’s a tiny version of it.” Of course, it’s something of a head-scratching initiative because what media buyers are looking for is portability of established content — and random shortform content mostly has failed to rise above the DIY cacophony of the Internet.
4. About that lack of ill will. Earlier in the day, Reilly confirmed that Randy Jackson would not be returning to American Idol next season, noting that there was “not an ounce of ill will” on either side. But when Simon Cowell took the stage with his fellow Fox unscripted stars, he joked to his former Idol pal, Seacrest: “Where’s Randy?” To which Idol host blurted, “Ask Kevin.” The comment was followed by brief and decidedly awkward laughter from both the stage and the audience. As for the long-running show, Reilly took the opportunity to remind media buyers that “12 years in, [Idol is] still a top five show. I don’t think any other show in history has generated so much cultural relevancy and attention.”??
5. Watch out cable. Reilly reiterated a point he had made earlier, which is that cable originals might get outsized attention and praise, but only four of the top 50 original series appear on basic cable. And his high-stakes Kevin Bacon effort, The Following, outrates all but one of them (The Walking Dead). On the receiving end of Reilly shout-outs: the long-running Bones casts as well as the network’s most prestigious stars, Bacon and Rake star Greg Kinnear. Lest the ad community didn’t notice Kinnear in the drama actor lineup, Reilly asked that the Oscar-nominated actor step forward and intro the net’s drama clips, which he did with a much-needed dolup of humor. Kinnear turned to Reilly and suggested that his deal explicitly noted that Rake would “run in its entirety without commercial breaks,” he quips, adding of the Madison Avenue audience: “So I don’t know what the hell all of these people are doing here.”
6. Reviving a broadcast tradition. Throughout the 90-minute presentation –more muted than past years– Reilly stressed the network’s investment in content, as if to reassure media buyers who might be jittery over the network’s double-digit ratings declines this season. One place where Fox is putting significant resources is in limited series including Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson‘s Billy the Kid, M. Night Shyamalan‘s Wayward Pines, an adaptation of Jeffrey Toobin‘s O.J. Simpson tome The Run of His Life and a remake of the classic Shogun. Of course, the effort that garnered the biggest buzz was a revival of 24, which will reunite showrunner Howard Gordon with star Kiefer Sutherland.